The Bell Jar Chapter 19 and 20 Summary

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath Menu

Chapter 19 Summary

Esther is back at the asylum, talking to Joan, who has declared she’s going to become a psychiatrist. Esther thinks this is pretty ridiculous, but doesn’t say anything out loud; she’s thinking about her diaphragm, all wrapped in brown paper in her bottom drawer. Then Joan surprises Esther by saying she’s going to live “out” now, meaning she’s leaving the hospital. Esther was already planning to return to college herself in January, but Dr. Nolan had vetoed the idea of living with her mother in the interim, so she’s jealous. Joan explains she’d be sharing an apartment with a nurse; Esther thinks how despite all her misgivings, she’d always treasure Joan. Would Esther visit her in her new place, Joan asked? Esther says yes, but thinks how unlikely that is.

Away from the hospital, on the steps of the library, Esther meets Irwin, a professor of mathematics. He asks her out for a cup of coffee, and they go back to his place; she doesn’t mention her “home” is an asylum. Once Esther has seen his study, she decides to seduce him; he has a dingy but comfortable basement apartment in outer Cambridge. They have coffee there, and then go out to dinner. To cover herself, Esther calls Dr. Nolan from the phone at the restaurant and asks if she can stay overnight with Joan at her place.

Esther was determined that the first man she sleeps be intelligent, thus the professor is a good choice. She thinks about Buddy’s hypocrisy and her own virginity, which she felt was weighing around her neck like a millstone. Back at his apartment, she tells Irwin she’s a virgin, and he only laughs. A few minutes later, an exclamation of surprise revealed he hadn’t believed her; she asks if it’s supposed to hurt like it did. He replies, sometimes it hurts. He gets up and goes into the bathroom and Esther hears the shower turn on; she didn’t know if they’d done it or not. She reaches between her legs and when she looks at her fingers they’re covered in black-colored blood. She asks Irwin to bring her a towel and remembers stories of blood-stained bridal sheets. She gets up to leave, feeling weak, but not wanting to stay; she was still bleeding. She finds Joan’s address in her purse and has Irwin drive her there.

Joan is happy to see her but knows immediately something is wrong; Esther asks if the nurse she lives with is there, and Joan says no. Joan calls a taxi and takes her to the hospital. Esther is able to tell a nurse the truth, and is immediately seen by a doctor who tells her “You’re one in a million.” He promises to fix her up.

A week or so later, Esther is sleeping at her room back at the hospital. It’s nearly midnight when a tap on her door wakes her up; Dr. Quinn, who is Joan’s doctor, appears, asking if she knew where Joan was. Joan had been readmitted to the hospital a few days after Esther’s trip to the hospital, but had retained her privileges. Dr. Quinn explains Joan had a pass to see a movie in town by herself and never returned. Esther suddenly feels the need to dissociate herself from Joan; and besides, she doesn’t actually know where she is. At dawn, there’s another tap on her door, Dr. Quinn again. She tells Esther Joan has been found in the woods – she had hung herself.

Chapter 20 Summary

In a week, if Esther passes her review before the board, she would be heading back to school in Philomena Guinea’s car. She looks at the snow piled “man-high” on the hospital grounds and thinks what her college in Massachusetts must look like. She worries how people would treat her when she returned; she had been bluntly warned, in fact, by Dr. Nolan that many people would avoid her. Her mother, less helpfully, tells Esther they’d pick up where they’d left off and pretend everything that came in between was a bad dream. Esther thinks: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.” Unfortunately, Esther thinks, she remembers everything: Doreen and the story of the fig tree and the broken thermometers and everything. She wishes she could forget everything – maybe it would be easier then. But, she thinks, all these things are part of her, part of her landscape.

Later, Buddy comes to visit her at the hospital, and for a moment she feels as if she’s back in college. When he appears, she evaluates her feelings and realizes she feels nothing for him. He tells her he’s stuck in a snow drift outside, and needs a shovel to dig out. She tells him he’s in no shape to be shoveling cars out, and he lets her do most of the work. Esther is thrilled to be outside in the fresh air, relieved to have a task to do so Buddy couldn’t ask her what she knew he wanted to. Later, at Belsize afternoon tea, he finally does ask – is it something in me, he asks, that drives women crazy? Esther can’t help herself and bursts out laughing and reassures Buddy he had nothing to do with it. But it wasn’t a silly question – Esther herself had asked Dr. Nolan if it might be her fault Joan killed herself, and Dr. Nolan reassured her that only Joan was responsible.

Assuming she passes the interview, Esther is leaving soon, and her fellow patients are both jealous and congratulatory. Valerie says goodbye by saying, “So long! Be seeing you.” And Esther wonders if she’ll be back or not: “How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

Buddy, perhaps to get back at her for feeling useless while she shoveled the snow around his car, wonders out loud about who she would marry. Esther wonders herself who would have her after where she’d been.

Since she’d had sex with Irwin and ended up in the hospital, she hadn’t spoken to him. She gets a bill from the hospital which treated her, calls Irwin and demands that he pay it. Esther is very relieved; there’s no way Irwin can track her down, and she feels utterly free.

Esther attends Joan’s funeral and sees a variety of people there: former classmates and some of the doctors and nurses from the hospital. She thinks about the grave Joan’s body will be place in, a black six-foot-deep gash hacked in the hard ground. She takes a deep breath and listens to the sound of her own heart: “I am, I am, I am.”

Esther waits outside the boardroom for her hearing, and despite previous reassurances by Dr. Nolan, is really nervous. She was dressed up for the interview, and thinks in her head how it feels sort of like a wedding day. But she wasn’t getting married. There should be, she thought, some sort of ritual for being born twice. Just then, Dr. Nolan motions her into the room. She pauses for a moment in the doorway and sees many of the doctors she remembers meeting when she was first admitted: “Their eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped in the room.”